News | COP 23 A summit of missed opportunities

Small steps forward, smokescreens and postponed decisions


Small steps forward, smokescreens and postponed decisions – on the ground, climate change is an already unfolding crisis, yet the climate summit stuck to the same old negotiating patterns.

By @RLS_Klima

In formal terms, the COP23 climate summit was a highly rational and technical summit. It aimed to establish a detailed Work Programme under the Paris Agreement – in principle, the rule book of the Paris Climate Agreement – and prepare it for adoption in the coming year. Nevertheless, the setting for this year’s climate summit was highly symbolic. Germany, a resource hungry champion of lignite and the world’s number one export nation, hosted the COP just 50km from one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2, while the summit’s presidency fell to Fiji, a nation which already faces the bitter reality of climate change. On the eve of the COP, in a clear move to highlight these symbolic contradictions, the Pacific Climate Warriors came to the viewing platform overlooking the opencast mine operated by German energy giant RWE in Hambach. The climate activists, some of them from Fiji, came forward and shouted their slogan ‘We are not drowning, we are fighting!’; indeed, they are struggling for nothing less than the very survival of their Pacific island nations. Behind them, the gaping crater of a mine, where a German energy corporation annually digs up millions of tons of lignite (one of the most climate-damaging forms of coal) to burn it to generate cheap energy and profits in spite of being fully aware of the devastating impact this fossil fuel has on the planet.

In the run-up to and during the summit, many state and non-state actors (mostly from the Global South) emphasised that this COP, presided over by Fiji, needed to send a strong signal to those most affected by climate change. Hopes were therefore high that in key areas, such as rapidly cutting back on emissions, taking effective steps towards scaling up climate finance, as well as establishing binding compensation commitments for climate loss and damage, the conference would make progress.

Unfortunately, the often-invoked momentum that arose from the 2015 Paris climate conference seems to have all but dissipated just two years on. This was a summit of missed opportunities. Instead of sending a strong message, the COP took only a few tentative steps forward, and was characterised far more by countries evading responsibility and taking the wrong decisions.

Delayed commitments and the coal alliance

Overall, the summit stayed true to the slow negotiating style of previous COPs; while being comprehensible considering the nature of such negotiations, such an approach is a catastrophe in light of the rapidly advancing pace of global warming. During the conference, the urgency for action fully hit home once it became known that global CO2 emissions, which had stagnated, rose again this year. The figures provided by the Global Carbon Project for 2017 clearly show why: when economic growth picks up, so too do emissions. This implies that when emissions do go down, they do so only marginally and not to the necessary extent. In other words, as long as states and corporations maintain their focus on economic growth, drastic cuts to emissions will never materialise.

This fact alone should be enough to debunk the dangerous myth that a green-washed ‘business as usual’ approach is sufficient to sever the link between economic growth and emissions. In the COP negotiations, however, the obvious fact that as long as our economies remain hinged on growth, we are headed towards catastrophic climate change was still absent from the agenda. Nothing highlights this paradox more clearly than a critical study of the supposed champion of climate policy, Germany.

The goal is not even in sight

After the COP23, we remain as far as ever from keeping global warming ‘well below 2°C’, which was the purported goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. Admittedly, praise is due for the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which did finally manage to put the issue of a coal phase-out onto the agenda of UN negotiations. This is indeed a positive signal because until very recently, the question was so taboo that it did not even make it into the Paris Agreement. Nonetheless, the alliance is unlikely to push for the necessary rupture with our current, highly energy-dependent economic model, which is an inherent feature of our obsession with capitalist growth. In statements, Canada and the UK, the two leading nations of this alliance of 20 countries, made this very clear. Both evoke high-risk nuclear power, as well as CCS technologies, which have so far not been tested at an industrial scale, as alternatives for securing their future energy. These are dangerous smokescreens, and faced with rising pressure to take action, similar ideas are bound to mushroom. The fossil and nuclear energy lobbies constantly promote such false solutions as true alternatives; their message could be heard in COP side events, at eye-catching booths in the conference area, from members of official country delegations and in the statements of technocratic negotiators.

Talanoa Dialogue from 2018 & the short time frame until 2020

Even after a further year of numerous extreme weather events – among them the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Caribbean – most industrialised nations remain unwilling to step up their efforts to cut emissions significantly before 2020. On paper, everybody agrees that the global economy needs to become climate neutral by 2050 (this does not exclude residual emissions and leaves the door wide open for countries to manipulate figures using negative emissions). Moreover, there is consensus that the sum of national climate targets will not allow us to achieve this goal. In spite of the rapidly closing window to keep global warming below 1.5°C, greater commitments to cut emissions have again been delayed.

Simply changing the name of the Facilitative Dialogue, which is the mechanism to analyse whether the commitments member states have made to reduce emissions will achieve the set goals, to the Talanoa Dialogue will do little to change this fact. Talanoa is a Fijian word and describes a participatory, inclusive and open dialogue. Guided by Fiji, in co-operation with Poland, the host of next year’s climate summit, this dialogue is set to begin in early 2018. The adoption of the Talanoa Dialogue is a success for Fiji’s presidency. It can, however, only become sustainable and relevant if the commitments made by partners actually lead to concrete action. To close the gap between current national climate targets and the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, states must ratchet up their commitments to reduce emissions.

Do the measures ensure that we will meet the Paris climate goal: yes or no?

Countries of the Global South fought hard for developed nations to agree to take more steps before 2020, i.e. before the Paris Agreement enters into force. It undoubtedly constitutes a win for the states’ negotiators. The concluding statement of the COP23 calls on nations to provide further information on how they effectively intend to increase their efforts before 2020. This data will be condensed into a report and serve as a benchmark to measure national efforts in the period between 2018 and 2019. Do the measures they have committed to meet the goal: yes or no? This aims to ensure that the world finally embraces a climate-friendly emissions trajectory. Considering the effort required by the Global South to force the North to accept this one concession, however, there is reason to be pessimistic. For several days, the issue became the focus of negotiations in Bonn, and this highlights the unwillingness of emission-heavy countries to fundamentally question their economic model. From 2023, an automatic global stocktake will take place every five years, but the clock is ticking.

A highly critical aspect remains the participation of lobbyists on behalf of corporations, whose business models contribute to the manifold crises of our time; fossil energy giants and agribusinesses top the list. Behind the scenes, as members of official delegations to the negotiations, at fair stands and side events, they aggressively promoted their agenda. This was, at times, met with protest, for example, when activists interrupted a presentation by the European Investment Bank, which co-finances the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (, a fossil fuel infrastructure project that would consolidate the dependency on gas for decades to come. So far, the UNFCCC has blocked attempts to exclude these lobbyists from negotiations.

The North wants to pay as little as possible

Climate finance, a permanent issue of debate, was obviously also on the table in Bonn. Primarily, this concerned the funds that the Global South requires to adapt to climate change, as well as the means to transition the economies of the Global South onto a climate-friendly trajectory. Currently, a scheme in the order of USD 100 billion annually is being discussed, a sum that industrialised nations would pay to countries of the Global South from 2020. How much of this money will stem from public budgets (on top of the development aid already being paid) and which share will come from private sources (and would therefore be included in the 100 billion total), remains a contentious issue.

Particularly fierce discussions arose this year concerning the reporting of funds provided by industrialised countries. Do industrialised nations provide these funds separately from, and in addition to, development co-operation funds? Are they included twice to augment the figures? Climate finance is a key aspect, particularly for the poor nations most affected by climate change. Instruments such as the Adaptation Fund or the Least Developed Countries Fund aim to provide these countries with the necessary means for climate adaptation. Making financial commitments towards these funds is important because it would allow these countries to plan measures, for example, to protect populations against rising sea levels or adapt irrigation systems ahead of severe droughts and expected crop failures.

An agreement on accounting rules for the USD 100 billion fund is unlikely to be reached until next year, but in this process, transparency and accountability remain essential – not least as there are fears that half of the USD 100 billion could be financed through repayable loans. This would run contrary to the Global South’s demand for climate justice.

To increase planning security and empower them to adapt to the already serious consequences of climate change, several countries in Bonn, including the poorest African nations, demanded binding climate aid pledges for the coming years, i.e. before 2020. Moreover, they demanded that donors commit to a subsequent increase of this aid. Regrettably, these negotiations were slow and lasted until the conference’s final minute, and industrialised nations made no secret of their unwillingness to pay. Under the pretext of a lack of time, they delayed a decision over the demand made by a group of African countries to include this question as a regular item on the agenda until the very last moment. Here the EU behaved no differently to the US.

Regarding climate finance, the only compromise that was reached concerned the Adaptation Fund, which is currently governed by the Kyoto protocol. The Global South is therefore demanding the fund be migrated over to the framework of the Paris Agreement. The achieved compromise foresees reaching a decision on a step-by-step transition next year. While this is a positive development, the compromise by no means constitutes real progress. Securing adequate financial means is and remains the key factor. While the North remains reluctant to pay, and it becomes ever clearer that funding through the Clean Development Mechanism is not a feasible option, the South continues to struggle for binding and adequate commitments.

Hopes were high that under Fiji’s presidency concrete compensation commitments by the countries most responsible for climate change could be achieved for climate loss and damage

It was downright cynical that a COP led by Fiji decided to cut funding to the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM) without any financial commitments. Climate loss and damage is of particular concern to Pacific island nations. Soil salinization is progressing and entire countries are at risk of disappearing into the oceans. Climate change will force people to migrate and threatens cultures and identities. Hopes were therefore high that under Fiji’s presidency the countries mainly responsible for climate change would make concrete compensation pledges. Although the participants in Bonn did decide on a new loss and damage working plan, this effectively means little. Industrialised countries are reluctant to provide binding financial pledges and there is no specific process in place that aims to ensure financial arrangements to underpin these commitments, even with only marginal contributions. The Warsaw Mechanism only makes it possible for financing concepts to be discussed within the scope of expert dialogue. It is therefore important to continue exerting pressure on the countries historically responsible for climate change to ensure that they commit to providing the necessary funds for loss and damage already occurring on a devastating scale due to climate change.

Contentious climate risk insurances are the only concrete financial proposal the Global North has made so far to the most affected countries. This was the only approach the Bonn COP promoted to support people affected by climate change. Bonn established the G20’s so-called InsuResilience Global Partnership, a project heavily endorsed by Germany. The approach rests on the idea that people should insure themselves against loss and damage. Those who have contributed the least to climate change are now expected to pay the consequences.

Successes with reservations

Still, this COP did also lead to minor progress in some areas. The Gender Action Plan recognises that climate change hits women particularly hard. Equally, the local communities and indigenous peoples platform is an important step in the right direction. In both cases, however, the value of these decisions will greatly depend on whether they entail concrete action (and receive corresponding funding), or if their sole aim is to (at least temporarily) side line uncomfortable issues.

Many countries refrain from taking responsibility

We face a continued lack of ambition to reduce emissions, and existing financial commitments are neither binding nor do they meet current needs, which has certainly affected the drive to negotiate the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Most countries are ducking their responsibility and attempting to avoid putting their cards on the table before 2020. A lack of willingness on the side of the Global North has prevented ambitious progress.

At least Germany’s image as a champion of climate policy has taken some severe blows. At the outset of the conference, climate activists from the Ende Gelände campaign shone a spotlight on the giant lignite-mining crater just 50 km away from the summit venue. Then, during the second week of the summit, the dithering of ‘climate chancellor’ Merkel highlighted the German government’s climate cynicism. Germany, as the world’s largest lignite producer, should have joined the alliance for a phase-out of coal. Instead, by engaging in political haggling during coalition talks between Merkel’s CDU, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party, German politics coldly showed how little it cares about the Global South. Luckily, civil society organisations, activists and the critical German and international press were on hand to highlight Germany’s flawed climate and energy policy.

The debates surrounding the climate summit and the parallel talks to establish a coalition government once again illustrated just how urgently we need a more honest debate on the implications of climate justice for Germany. We need far more honesty than was on display from Chancellor Angela Merkel in her watered-down comments in Bonn and the wrangling over a coal phase-out during her party’s coalition talks. As the majority of people in Germany are now aware, climate change is a reality that requires structural changes to the economy and our way of life. We (and this also applies to those who are socially on the left) are therefore called upon to actively shape this social dynamic. It starts by working towards a true phase-out of coal and a fundamental transformation of the transport sector, as well as in agriculture and resource policies. Far from being peripheral issues, environmental and climate protection need to become integral elements of any globally just policy. We have to face related discussions concerning power, property, democracy, participation and social justice head on.